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How to make sure journalists get your story correct

on August 16, 2010

I’ve worked as a journalist for more than 15 years and one of my greatest fears, for which I’ve realized, is simply getting information wrong. I try really hard not to make those mistakes, but with so many moving parts it’s often inevitable that mistakes will happen.

Sometimes journalists are not on the top of their game. And sometimes they’re just no good.

Whatever the situation is with a journalist that’s interviewing you, there is a way to make your experience go well.

What follows are some techniques to making sure your story gets recorded correctly, and with the tone you expect. I can’t guarantee that the journalist will write the story in the manner you want, but these tips will definitely reduce the number of errors, so you won’t have one of those, “Uggh, that’s not what I said. It’s all wrong!” experiences.

If they don’t record the interview, ask to see the quotes

Sadly, there are many journalists that I respect that simply do not record their interviews. It drives me crazy. Recording interviews via audio or video is a necessary evil that every journalist must do. I know it’s no fun to have to go back and listen to quotes, but it truly is the only way to get quotes accurately. Unless you’re from the Slow Talkers of America, almost no one can type as fast as you can talk. And no journalist I know can write shorthand.

When you agree to an interview, ask the journalist if they’ll be recording the interview. If they’re not and they plan on quoting you, request that you see the quotes before they go in print. If they refuse, ask them why. One excuse may be that they need to write the piece right away and they don’t have time to get your review. Ask them when they will need you to review the quotes and simply let them know that you’ll be available and you’ll turn around a response in the time they need. If they want they can call and read the quote back to you over the phone for confirmation. Another option is they can read back the quote to you at the moment they write it down.

Or you can just ask them to record the interview.

Don’t ask to review the piece before they publish it

While it is completely cool to ask to see quotes before they’re published, especially if the journalist isn’t recording the interview, it is not cool to ask to review the entire article. It is truly the most insulting thing you can ask a journalist. I’ve had PR reps ask me this before and I immediately think, “Are you serious? I’m a journalist, not your friggin’ media relations monkey.” And worse, if you built up any goodwill during the interview and then make that request, your built up goodwill has now been completely shot.

Ask them to repeat back the information you just told them

I’m often writing about technology and interviewing people about very complicated technology processes. To make sure I understand what they’re saying, I’ll often pause the conversation and say, “Let me repeat what you just said back to you, to make sure I fully understand it.” I’ve used this technique many times because it makes me more comfortable in an interview, and usually the interviewee will clarify a small element in my explanation. The other benefit is it allows me to continue active listening instead of worrying if I fully understood what was said earlier.

Not all journalists do this. But you as an interviewee subject can ask them to regurgitate what you said, especially if you’re explaining something very complicated.

WARNING: Be careful how you approach this subject. Depending on how and when you make the request you can come off like a schoolteacher demanding, “Were you paying attention?” Instead, just before you begin the more technical portion say, “I’m going to explain a very complicated process. Just to make sure you completely understand it, do you mind repeating it back to me when we’re finished? I just want to make sure you fully understand it.” Just be extremely careful not to sound condescending. Your sole goal is correct transformation of information.

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Provide follow up information

Whether you’re a PR rep or an interview subject, when a journalist asks for follow up information, give it to them before they have to ask for it again via email. This is really important because if you do follow up with what they wanted it can tip the balance of slanting something in a story. It’s a slight gesture, but good proactive communications will improve results on the accuracy of information and tone of the story.

Write your own blog and point them to it

Anyone who is constantly being interviewed should definitely have a blog. It can be a great resource for the interviewer and fantastic follow up traffic for you because they’ll link to your blog posts as a  follow up resource.

If you find yourself answering the same question again and again, do yourself and everyone else a favor and just write a blog post about it. That way when someone asks you the question again, you can just give them the headlines and then point them to the article. With all the information written out and visible, not rerecorded audibly by someone else, it reduces the chance that there will be an error in reporting your information.

Last year I had a great interview with Paul Levy, CEO of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a hospital where my father worked as a doctor for more than 40 years. Levy has made quite a name for himself with his blog, “Running a Hospital.” It’s a blog he writes himself, publishing one or two posts a day.

When I asked Levy about balancing his CEO duties with blogging, he didn’t think there should be a distinction between the two. “If one of your jobs as CEO of an organization is to represent that organization before the public. With traditional venues being newspapers, speeches, lectures, and the like. Then use of social media is a logical extension of that corporate responsibility of the CEO. The outreach potential is excellent plus you can express your point of view not being filtered by reporters, or editors, or whatever,” Levy said. Levy went on to explain that when he’s interviewed by a journalist he never knows what the story will look like when it’s published. With his own blog, he knows exactly what it will look like.

For more tips on blogging when you’re way to busy, read “Blogging advice for people who ‘have no time to blog.’

Does the journalist have an agenda?

I once ran into this problem when I was being interviewed by a local reporter for a CBS affiliate in San Francisco. It was a piece about Facebook announcing that they were going to be releasing user content to web crawlers so it would be indexable and thus searchable via search engines like Google. Facebook was letting the public know that our profiles would soon be searchable through traditional search engines, thus giving us a chance to change our privacy settings before it actually happened. I was trying to impress upon the reporter that this was a good thing for Facebook to do because competitors MySpace and LinkedIn did the same thing, but never offered up a public alert before it happened, giving us a chance to opt-out by changing our privacy settings.

Little did I know that the reporter had an agenda. Well, she works for local news and they need to scare the crap out of their viewers. You can read the full story about what happened here and actually see the video of the segment. When the piece was produced, I come off looking like a hacker and a stalker that broke into the account of one of the young female college interns that work at the station.

To prevent this from happening to you, first you need to know if the person is reputable or a blogger with a storied past. You can discover that quickly by reading his/her past posts and seeing the editorial bent of their writing. After that, do a little pre-interviewing of the interviewer. In a very friendly, not accusatory, manner ask, “So what’s your take on the story so far?” and “Who have you spoken with so far? Who do you plan on speaking with?”

This information will give you a lot of insight to the planned tone of the piece if that’s already been predetermined.

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What if a mistake is made?

There’s a very high likelihood that you won’t agree with everything that’s in the final piece. Depending on the type of mistake, there are a series of actions you can take:

  • Eggregious error – The error is bad and makes the journalist look stupid if anyone finds out. Don’t leave a comment. Simply send an email explaining the mistake but try not to make it sound like it was the stupidest mistake the journalist could have made.
  • Simple factual error – If it’s a small error, like the spelling of someone’s name, just send a quick email and let them know about the mistake and offer up a compliment about the piece as a whole.
  • Didn’t get the full story – If you’d like to add more color to the story than the journalist provided, leave a comment on the article and point to follow up information.
  • Don’t agree with the theme – If the journalist simply took an opposite side of what you were trying to explain, first send a private email asking why your theme wasn’t represented in the piece. If they are adamant about their opinion and said they simply don’t agree, feel free to leave a comment in the piece with a link to follow up information on your site. Your follow up piece on your site should specifically cite the article and point back to the original article. If your opinion isn’t appropriately expressed within an article, the next best thing is to get your opinion alongside (within comments) and linked to (your own blog post) the article.

You can always point out mistakes, but never ask a journalist to change the article. They can do the math themselves. If they feel the article warrants a change then they’ll change it. You asking them to change the piece will often have the reverse effect. They’ll be so annoyed they’ll start to act defiant as they have no allegiance to you, only their publication. I’ve had PR reps ask me to change something in an article and I get so offended that I go out of my way to keep the article as it is.

For more, check out this article How PR Professionals Can Participate in New Media. It’s over three years old, but the theories in the piece still hold true to today.

Suggestions of your own?

These are my suggestions from my own experience, but I’m eager to know if any of you have recommendations of your own. Let me know.

Creative Commons photo credits to smiling_da_vinci, sskennel, chriswild, speedye, and thivierr

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